Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Peru Farmers Drop Cocaine in Favor of Cocoa

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Peru Farmers Drop Cocaine in Favor of Cocoa

Article excerpt

Tapping into a niche market for organic cocoa, some Peruvian farmers have turned away from cocaine in favor of growing beans for high-end chocolate retailers in Europe and the US.

Deep in a valley where Peru's snow-capped Andes melt into Amazon jungle, Wilder Diaz Angulo cuts open a football-sized cocoa pod and separates precious brown beans from their fleshy white placentas.

The farmer takes care not to damage a single bean. That would hurt his chances of getting the best price for the specialty organic cocoa his cooperative sells for export to high-end chocolate retailers in Europe and the United States.

Life is calmer now that Mr. Angulo sells cocoa instead of coca.

But just a few short years ago he was dodging bullets and hiding from Peruvian soldiers, Colombian drug traffickers, and the brutal leftist Shining Path insurgents. Like hundreds of thousands of other farmers in Peru's fertile San Martin region, Angulo participated in the global cocaine trade.

"Coca brought lots of easy money ... mucho dinero," says Angulo with a wistful smile. "But now we feel comfortable and safe. We don't have to hide from anyone."

Peru's drug traffickers have moved into more remote areas, and cocoa growers from across the globe are coming here to learn how to duplicate Peru's success. It's not a quick fix. But years of coordinated effort by the United Nations, the US and Peruvian governments, foreign aid groups, local leaders, and the farmers are now paying dividends. And key reasons for the turnaround - listening to local needs, creating synergy among a diverse array of actors, and sticking to market fundamentals - could carry lessons for other "narcostates" such as Afghanistan and Colombia.

"This whole area used to be a terrorist haven," says Fernando Rubio, an environmental activist and agroforestry promoter. "Now it is a success story. [French President Nicolas Sarkozy] says it's the best chocolate in the world."

Peru's cocaine production is far below what it was in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the country was home to the world's largest cocaine industry. Back then, more than 25 percent of Peru's coca cultivation - on some 44,500 acres - occurred in San Martin. Now, coca is grown on less than 2.500 acres, according to US embassy figures.

The US worked with former right-wing authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori to eradicate coca crops and push insurgents and narcotraffickers out of San Martin. But initial efforts to get farmers to switch to other crops failed.

In the late 1990s, various foreign aid groups ushered in programs that taught San Martin coca farmers how to grow alternative crops, but didn't do much to connect them with the niche markets that brought the best prices, and rarely coordinated with one another. The result was a damaging lack of trust that led many communities to kick out the groups, says Darwin Aguila Solano, the San Martin regional director for Chemonics, a Washington-based firm contracted by the US Agency for International Development to help the region develop its cocoa and coffee industries. …

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